Environmentalism and the Immoral Low Ground

By Connor O’KeeffeJune 6, 2023

Last month, the Biden administration’s Environmental Protection Agency proposed new power plant regulations that would put harsh limits on the amount of carbon dioxide released while producing electricity. This comes from the same administration pushing to electrify all parts of daily life, from driving to cooking. As if slamming the power grid with artificial demand is not enough, now the federal government has also set its sights on electricity suppliers.

Policies as ludicrous as this are only possible because the ideology they rest on, environmentalism, has long enjoyed a perch on the moral high ground that has gone almost unchallenged. That needs to change. Environmentalism presents itself as a philosophy advocating benevolence toward nature and prudence with resources. But in reality, it is an antihuman ideology capable of justifying atrocities.

Environmentalism rests on the valuation of untouched, nonhuman nature as the highest good. There are, of course, radical and moderate environmentalists, but all adherents subscribe to this fundamental moral valuation. They only differ in their degree of consistency.

This moral view was perhaps best summarized by National Park Service biologist David Graber in his 1989 review of Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature. Dr. Graber concludes his review with these three haunting paragraphs:

That makes what is happening no less tragic for those of us who value wildness for its own sake, not for what value it confers upon mankind. . . . McKibben is a biocentrist, and so am I. We are not interested in the utility of a particular species, or free-flowing river, or ecosystem, to mankind. They have intrinsic value, more value—to me—than another human body, or a billion of them.

Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet. I know social scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn’t true. Somewhere along the line—at about a billion years ago, maybe half that—we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth.

It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-energy consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.

That final line was unsurprisingly revisited during the last few years. In this view, if there was anything bad about covid-19 it’s that it was not deadly enough—especially for young people who have yet to have kids. That viewpoint is evil.

This idea that humanity is a cancer can be found in the writings and arguments of other environmentalists, though most are less explicit. However, that fundamental moral frame is still there. Humans are seen as something separate from nature—an outside force diluting and corrupting nature with concrete, plastic, and carbon dioxide. If an untouched, wild planet is seen as the highest good, then any human development to make the environment more livable for humans is to be seen as the moral bad. The global climb out of extreme poverty brought about by industrialization is not to be considered a miracle but a tragedy.

This idea isn’t often said outright as Dr. Graber did above, but the sentiment can be found in widespread aversion to man-made materials, disgust with urban sprawl, and the aim for low carbon footprints. We’re so used to hearing that low carbon footprints are good, but give it a little thought: Environmentalists will freely admit that one of the worst things you can do for your carbon footprint is to have children. That’s true. And on the other, less talked about end, the people who best lowered their carbon footprints were history’s biggest mass murderers. This is a blatantly antihuman metric for success and an obvious pretext for future atrocities.

All that said, the ideologues responsible for developing and advocating this moral framework are only one part of the broader movement that has thrust environmentalism to the forefront of US policy. This green coalition has many members:

  • Politicians who want to win elections and secure a place in history
  • Bureaucrats who want greater control over more people and resources
  • Media leaders who like scary-sounding stories
  • Academics who want relevance, funding, and power
  • Energy companies who care about their brand and who want to maneuver themselves to benefit from policy changes
  • Activists who want to feel like they’re saving the world
  • Managerial elites who quite literally think they can and should run the world
  • Everyday people who have actively or passively accepted the environmentalist narrative

As long as they’ve been around, governments have latched on to ideologies that justify seizing more power. The unitary executive theory did not intrigue the George W. Bush administration because of its sharp arguments but because it promised them more power. The same can be said for Keynesian economics and now for environmentalism.

Over the past few decades, this coalition has taken up a campaign aimed mainly at young people to terrify the population into handing over nearly total control of the economy to fend off an ecoapocalypse caused by climate change. The argument for this is branded as one straightforward point of settled science, but it rests on nine unique premises:

  1. The climate is not static, it is changing.
  2. The climate is currently warming.
  3. This warming will have terrible consequences.
  4. These terrible consequences cannot be overcome.
  5. Humans are responsible for the warming.
  6. Humans can slow or reverse the warming.
  7. Nearly all humans are incapable of making the choices necessary to slow or reverse the warming.
  8. A subset of humans is smart enough to understand the choices necessary to slow or reverse the warming.
  9. This subset of humans can and should use the force of government to compel the rest of the humans to make any and all changes to their lifestyle that are necessary to slow or reverse the warming.

This is presented not as a series of positive statements to be considered but as one single absolute truth that must be accepted in full. And the coalition has worked hard to create a high social cost to any level of disagreement. Further, the “lifestyle change” that is required is the deindustrialization of the developed world mixed with a halt to the industrialization of the Third World.

Although many in the developed world have thus far shown a willingness to be made poorer by their governments, the Third World will require the heavy hand of militarized government to stop them from industrializing. Denying billions of people the means to climb out of poverty will be met with resistance. And peddling the fiction that it can be done with solar and wind energy can’t sidestep the ugly problem at the heart of global climate initiatives.

There’s a common misconception that the next great evil ideological mania to sweep our world will be easily identified as a sinister movement from the outset. But that’s not true. The next great evil will play out like all the past ones. It will sound good to many. It will be popular. And there will be social pressure to join in. But underneath the moving language will lie a rejection of humanity—be it a subset or the whole species. That rejection plants the seed for future atrocities.

Environmentalism has all the traits of such an ideology. It does not deserve to hold the moral high ground. A healthy, clean, prosperous environment for humans is what our species has been building for thousands of years. Do not fall for the tricks of those who want to halt or reverse that progress, and never support a movement that thinks the world would be better without you in it.

Connor O’Keeffe is a writer and video producer at the Mises Institute. He has a masters in economics and a bachelors in geology.

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